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No Problem, No Story

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

If there is no problem, we have no story; if we have a story, there must be a problem.* At least one. The problem – or starting point, trigger, whatever you want to call it – that individual stories revolve around even serves as a way of identifying that story: the problem in crime fiction is crime, the problem in romantic fiction is romance, the problem in coming-of-age stories is – you guessed it – coming of age (or not coming of age). Problems are where the action comes in.** And the drama:

But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way. (Austen Volume I, chapter 1)

The work of Jane Austen, you might think, is rather straight forward on problems. She wrote romantic comedies. Hence, the problems that keep her stories going are related to romance: the attraction between lovers (not necessarily a problem yet, but there are exceptions, star-crossed lovers etc.), their being kept apart (by their own or others’ actions; involves a LOT of problems), and (maybe) happy ending. That’s it. Not much of a mystery there. But as the quote above implies, Austen’s novels are often quite aware of their fictional make-up: romance doesn’t work without a “hero,” a second partner in crime. (Mixing my metaphors. And genres. Dada.) Even the very first step, the introduction of both a “heroine” and a “hero,” is reflected and commented upon, exposing the rules of the genre Austen is writing in.

And that’s on purpose.

Northanger Abbey (published in 1817) is, after all, a parody of gothic fiction: tall, dark, handsome, smouldering, brooding heroes with dishevelled hair who generally live in stunning but slightly shabby castles (or abbeys!) in (then) exotic places such as Switzerland or Italy and exhibit more or less weird, mysterious and/or disturbing behaviour who then encounter young, innocent, beautiful and curious women who are far too easily impressed. And there always seems to be a storm at one point. (We can still encounter this move in all kinds of modern film and tv as well – keep a lookout for emotional weather scenes! Tumult inside and out.) Or a ghost. Or similar. The problem may be a secret, a crime, or the hero as such – or the heroine? Prejudice. Yeah. And a bit of Pride.

Just in case it didn’t become clear yet, a parody is

A literary composition modelled on and imitating another work, esp. a composition in which the characteristic style and themes of a particular author or genre are satirized by being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect. (OED, “parody n.2” 1.a.)

Parody usually comes with a heightened awareness of form. It does not simply tell a story, one might say, it tells a story about a specific kind of storytelling by using, exploiting and thus making fun of said storytelling. (So meta. Amazing.) So the problems our heroine encounters in Northanger Abbey are pretty far-fetched and unlikely. As is the heroine. Nevertheless, Catherine, the simple country girl, meets the unknown stranger(s), spends a stormy(!) night next to a mysterious trunk, (seemingly) encounters mystery and murder. For the plot, it doesn’t really matter that the ‘problems’ exist in her imagination only – they are what keeps the story going. Tension and release.

Made-up or not.

Northanger Abbey, though, is not the only Austen novel that explores this theme of (a lack of) problems. With Emma (published in 1815, but written later than Northanger Abbey), she even goes a step further:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. (Volume I, chapter 1)

That doesn’t sound like problems, does it? Where do you go from “perfection” (Volume III, chapter 7)? Underneath the surface, of course. In Emma it is Emma who generates most of the problems. Interior and exterior. She is the problem and the solution. It’s an interesting trick, a shift in where problems may come from – and a way to allow literature to be part of the ‘ordinary,’ to be told from ‘within.’ If problems are everywhere, stories are everywhere – just look outside of your own front door. It’s not an entirely new insight, either: fairy tales from all over the world, for example, are often about quite ordinary people. Farmers, children, tailors, maids, soldiers. The problems they encounter, however, are usually quite extraordinary. Meeting a king, finding a magical and/or valuable object, encountering a genie, a fairy, a snake lady, going on an impossible journey… Austen is one of those authors who show that the problems, too, can be smaller, closer to home – perhaps also less extreme and less sparkly, but not at all less interesting to solve.

Emma, it turns out, is not that different from Northanger Abbey: in both novels “Something must and will happen” (my emphasis). At all costs. And voila!  there’s our problem: the (characters’ – only theirs?) simple need for a story. And a hero. And a long, long series of confusion and delay “thrown” (OED, “problem, n.” etym.) at them(selves).

No problem, no story.

* Problem literally translates as “a thing thrown or put forward” (OED, “problem, n.” etym.) – did Austen know about this Greek origin, “throw[ing]” her “hero” in like that? Hm.

** Sometimes literally. Problems are, for example, essential to the Judeo-Christian world view on the human story itself: you nibble some forbidden fruit and paradise is lost for you. It’s been problems ever since. Other world religions have similar premises, the essential role of suffering in Buddhism etc. There seems to be a pattern there: problems are the beginning, their resolution, the end.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma: A Novel. 1815. Wikisource, Accessed 12 July 2020.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1817. Wikisource, Accessed 12 July 2020.

“parody, n.2” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020, Accessed 12 July 2020.

“problem, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020, Accessed 12 July 2020.

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